A people’s history of the Egyptian revolution (4)

Hani Shukrallah , Saturday 7 Sep 2013

The people’s revolutionary upsurge strikes at the foundations of SCAF supremacy, paradoxically whetting the Brotherhood’s appetite for power

4. It’s the people, stupid!

At the risk of over-tiring a metaphor, let me recount a bit of personal history.

My paternal grandfather was a clerk with the British army in Egypt. I never knew what the job involved exactly, but apparently back in the first half of the twentieth century it was a fairly lucrative job for a rather humble effendi to have. My paternal grandmother was tough, witty, very fat and barely literate, besides being an amazing cook (of traditional Egyptian fare, naturally) and an inexhaustible wellspring of stories.

As family history would have it, my grandfather was a kindly but tyrannical patriarch rather typical of the effendi class of these times. Quick to anger, he would shout commands, eat his meals with the family, take his siesta and spend the balance of his day either at work or at a cafe with his cronies – leaving the management of the household and the rearing of his two sons to my grandmother.

It seems to have been a fairly prosperous household, if my grandmother’s cuisine is any indication (almost invariably involving an abundance of meat cooked in unrefined butter), able to provide both my father and uncle with a good education, my father at Cairo University (then, Fouad I) and my uncle at the then highly regarded, Military Academy.

All of this was passed on history as far I was concerned. By the time I could take in my familial environment some drastic changes had taken place. In 1951, the Wafd Party declared a National Jihad against the British occupation. (There was nary an ounce of religious connotation to the word Jihad at the time, it might be noted). This included a call on Egyptians working for the British army to leave. My grandfather resigned, putting his savings into a print-shop operation. Life-time clerks don’t make good entrepreneurs, it seems, and the print-shop went bust.

The family I grew up in was very different from that of my personal pre-history. The balance of forces between my paternal grandparents had been overturned. You could possibly detect a shadow of the old Effendi. Though jobless, he would invariably spend most of the day (up until he was too ill, and bed-ridden) out of the house. He would go out in suit, tie and fez, sporting an elegant cane. Where he went, I have no idea, but there was absolutely no doubt in my childhood mind, the upper hand in that old marriage was solidly my grandmother’s. If there were any arguments – and there were many – it was she who invariably came out on top.

This, pretty much, describes the shifting fortunes of the SCAF-MB marriage we discussed in the last section of this history. SCAF’s misfortune, however, was not due to a bad investment, but to the ongoing resistance of a rebellious people.

But before resuming our historical narrative, we might pause a little before a question which has no doubt occurred to many over the past three instalments. What you may well ask, is the point of going over all this past at a time when the present is charged with such urgency?

Why, context of course – and the kind of memory which, in Howard Zinn’s words, keeps revolt an inch below the surface. A major failing of much that has been written and opined on the 30 June uprising against Muslim Brotherhood rule (or the third wave of the Egyptian revolution) has been the remarkable absence of a sense of its place in Egypt’s recent history. I have warned repeatedly of failing to see the forest for the trees. And here I try to situate some of those trees back into their surrounding foliage.

Once we do this, the most significant actor in our remarkable story of unremitting upheaval comes into sharp focus. It’s the people! Not liberals, leftists, Muslim Brothers and Salafists, not secularists and Islamists, not military, deep state, and Mubarak regime remnants, but an Egyptian people on the move, in this, our time of the inundation.

That so many intelligent and sophisticated analysts, scholars and commentators can fail to see them is not new, but it’s a failure that may be barely tolerable in normal times, but is disastrous in times of revolutionary upheaval. If in doubt, have a read through Howard Zinn’s magnificent, A People’s History of the United States.

Having said this, the first point that needs to be underlined here is that it was the incessant pressure from below, by the ongoing rebellion of the Egyptian people – unafraid, determined and empowered by their revolution – that lay principally and, indeed, overwhelmingly behind the deepening cracks in the SCAF-Muslim Brotherhood power-sharing accommodation, leading up to its ultimate demise.

Three faces symbolizing the reinstatement of former powers in Egypt: President Morsi behind images of Mubarak and Tantawi (photo: Reuters)

Incredibly, this constant revolutionary pressure from below – boycotted and vehemently opposed and condemned by the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies – would act paradoxically to whet their appetite for power.

The military, which saw itself, and was seen by the Brotherhood and the outside world as the “senior partner” in the power-sharing deal was discredited as never before – indeed, more so than during its darkest hour, in the days that followed Egypt’s traumatic and humiliating defeat at Israeli hands in June 1967’s “Six-day War”.

The police, shattered, demoralised and half rogue, yet as vicious and brutal as ever, is under constant attack from the people, and is thus rendered unable to regain even a semblance of its old powers.

The erstwhile ruling NDP network, rooted in intimate, corruption- packed business-state linkages, state patronage and police repression proves all but irreparable; again under popular revolutionary pressure, its leaders are hauled into prison one after another.

A reminder: initially, the SCAF would act to bring to justice less than a handful of the ostensibly overthrown regime, with the former organisational secretary of the NDP, steel magnate Ahmed Ezz being a nearly unique exception. It is only under intense pressure from the ongoing revolution that they would be forced to prosecute Mubarak himself, Interior Minister Habib El-Adly, and along with them, one by one, most of the top figures of Mubarak’s ruling clique.

By the day, the senior partner to the post-revolution power-sharing entente proves more paper than tiger. And yet, the paradox at the heart of the Egyptian revolution from day 1 sees very little change. Able to shatter the Mubarak regime, it is unable to replace it, and yet again able to drastically weaken the SCAF and its associated ancien régime handles, it continues to lack the vision, or the organisational and political machinery, experience and skill to fill the vacuum, even partially.

For the Muslim Brotherhood, whose relationship with the revolution has been governed from the very first day with the opportunistic mind-set of a hijacker,  there is now more than sufficient cause not so much to break the partnership (in fact, they never do), but rather to change its terms. The self-imposed limit of running for a third of parliamentary seats is the first to go out the window; they run for every single seat.

The election itself emboldens them further. The one third predicted for the NDP network never materialises – who wants a patron who’s unable to deliver either a carrot or a stick? The non-Islamist parties, the decrepit old and the as yet nascent new, capture a measly share, while the revolutionary youth are in possession of no unified organisation of their own, and are spread thinly among several political parties; the latter invariably dominated by political figures from considerably older generations, whose mindset had been configured in the course of thirty or more years of helpless and hapless opposition. (The contrast between the irreverence, even contempt in which the young revolutionary generation held power, and the profound awe with which their older comrades – however well intentioned – held it, is well worth studying on its own).

The revolution would continue to find expression on the street, and very little if at all in the formal political realm, which – in any case – had been rigged against it from the start.

Meanwhile, to the chagrin of the SCAF, the Muslim Brotherhood would continue to exploit the growing weakness of their senior partner, even as they dissociate themselves and condemn in the strongest terms the very people who are doing the weakening. Their publicly reiterated promise not to run for the post president, which was to be the principal institutional embodiment of the power-sharing deal would go out the window as well.

If the SCAF had been worried by the Brotherhood’s earlier reneging on their promises viz. parliamentary share, they were now extremely worried. The alliance begins to fracture. Field Marshal Tantawi, hurtling towards political oblivion, would tell confidantes that while he and his SCAF colleagues had never sought to maintain direct rule, he would not go down in history as the man who handed Egypt over to the Muslim Brotherhood – as pathetic a refrain as his whole reign as supreme leader of the nation and Islamist-designated “prince of the faithful” had been, and as his political demise would prove to be.

Next: “We at the height are ready to decline”


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